Fat Books & Thin Women


#Longreads: Meghan O’Rourke’s “Nancy Drew’s Father”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books


When I was eight or nine years old and learned that Carolyn Keene wasn’t the writer of Nancy Drew – that Carolyn Keene was, in fact, a name stamped on books written by a number of ghost writers – I was crushed. Briefly, I became suspicious of my other favorite series. Was Ann M. Martin not a real person? How about Francine Pascal?

I got over it in about a day, because I loved the Nancy Drew stories. What I most loved about them was that they seemed to never end. Whether I examined my reasoning or not, I came to accept that Carolyn Keene wasn’t a real person because the number of writers working on the Nancy Drew books gave me so much more reading material than a single writer ever could. I could read the old yellow hardcover books, the newer trade paperbacks (whose numbers began where the hardcovers’ left off), the mass market editions following Nancy through mysteries + romantic entanglements (The Nancy Drew Files) and college (Nancy Drew on Campus).

Enter Meghan O’Rourke’s fun article, “Nancy Drew’s Father,” which is about not Carson Drew but Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of the syndicate that published the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, among others. O’Rourke does a great job of contextualizing Stratemeyer’s success in producing these books, looking both at the company’s workings and at the social changes that left a space for inexpensive hardbacks children would want to buy with their own money. The popularity of the syndicate’s books is hard to believe.

In 1926, ninety-eight per cent of the boys and girls surveyed in a poll published by the American Library Association listed a Stratemeyer book as their favorite, and another survey showed that the Tom Swift books, which the syndicate launched in 1910, were at the top of the list.

Clearly there was a need and desire for the sorts of books Stratemeyer produced. As anyone familiar with the uproar over James Frey’s syndicate knows, it’s hard to feel entirely comfortable with the treatment of novels like any other assembly line product. Stratemeyer’s books fascinate especially because some of them have lasted so long. It’s hard for someone like me, who grew up reading the Nancy Drew books, to imagine a day when they’re not being devoured by children. (To my readers who have children: do they still like these books?)

The Nancy Drew books had a clear house style, and the writers were tasked with filling in the details of the plot outlines provided them by Stratemeyer, producing books that would make a literary critic shudder but thrill legions of young readers.

Stratemeyer would come up with a three-page plot for each book, describing locale, characters, time frame, and a basic story outline. He mailed this to a writer, who, for a fee ranging from fifty dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, would write the thing up and—slam-bang!—send it back within a month. Stratemeyer checked the manuscripts for discrepancies, made sure that each book had exactly fifty jokes, and cut or expanded as needed. (Each series had a uniform length; the standard was twenty-five chapters.) He replaced the verb “said” with “exclaimed,” “cried,” “chorused,” and so forth, and made sure that cliffhangers punctuated the end of each chapter—usually framed as a question or an exclamation.

It seems to me that Stratemeyer got something right in the characters he was offering readers. Nancy Drew was someone a young reader could look up, could aspire to be, but she wasn’t necessarily someone a mother or father would want their child turning into, despite her good manners.

I’m curious, if you grew up reading the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books: when did you figure out that Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon weren’t real people, but pen names? Did that change the way you read the books, or not matter at all? And do you, like me, still hold that dream of writing as Carolyn Keene, despite the horrifyingly low pay and lack of creative freedom?

Read Meghan O’Rourke’s “Nancy Drew’s Father”

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3 Comments

My mom (born in 1952) read these books… I read them (born in 1974) and my daughter (2002) is making her way through them now – I think she’s read somewhere around the first 35 or so. One difference for my daughter – easy access to inter-library loan & the computer. We have a printed list of the titles in order, and she checks on our home computer to see if the next few titles are at the library, and requests any that aren’t & then we go pick them up. It certainly wasn’t that easy for me to get my hands on books. I still remember the thrill of finding a new book from a favorite author (especially Madeleine L’Engle, who my daughter is named after) at my library or bookstore. Now it’s so easy to keep with new releases and get them because of the online inter-library loan system!

I don’t know about my mom, but I also read many Hardy Boys books, and I just started M on those too – she’s read a handful. She also likes the Cat Warriors book series, and The Royal Diaries series.

Honestly, it never occurred to me that the authors were pen names… but of course now it makes sense.

Comment by Christina K

Oh, so cool to hear that Nancy Drew has been “passed down” in your family like that! And that it’s become so much easier for your daughter to find the books in order. I remember going to the bookstore at the mall with my parents (it seems like every weekend), and to the used bookstore near my house, trying to buy the hardcover Nancy Drews in order. It was such a shock when I realized that there were two editions of the first 13 Nancy Drew books – Applewood Press had reprinted the original versions of the stories, before they were edited to bring them up-to-date. (I think these may be out of print now, which is a shame. I bought a couple and it was interesting to compare the changes that had taken place – I’ll have to see if I can find my own copies when I get home in a few months.)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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